#REVIEW: Moon of the Crusted Snow, by Waubgeshig Rice

I bought Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow on the same Amazon spree that brought me Tanya Tagaq’s Split Tooth, and for much the same reason: I’ve read very little by Indigenous/Native people to begin with, and at the time nothing from anyone outside the United States. Amazon’s algorithm threw this at me, and it looked interesting, so I grabbed it. I love finding new authors this way, and this is definitely a time when it really worked out, as both books are stellar. Split Tooth is a bit of a hard recommend because of its content– the review has a trigger warning on it, and for a very good reason– but Moon of the Crusted Snow is much more of a straight piece of fiction and it’s a lot easier to kind of toss my arms out toward everyone and say you should read this!

Because you should.

Moon of the Crusted Snow, at 217 pages, is a bit long to call a novella and a bit short to call a novel, but it’s definitely a quick read one way or another. The premise is this: Evan Whitesky, lives in a “northern” Anishnaabe community (more on that in a second) that is suddenly and abruptly cut off from the outside world– phones stop working, the power goes out, satellite phones go dead, everything– right at the beginning of winter. The book is kind of broadly post-apocalyptic, as you eventually get small looks at the outside world, mostly through refugees that come to the Rez looking for shelter, and it seems like everywhere has gone to hell at the same time. For the most part, though, the book is confined to the reservation.

On the word “northern” up there: the best thing about this book is the setting and the overall tone of the writing; describing the book as “chilling” the way the pull quote on the cover does is a good choice of words. Moon of the Crusted Snow is excellently claustrophobic and creepy even though the actual plot isn’t obviously all that complicated or scary; if you know that the basic idea is that this small community is cut off from the outside world during winter you can probably predict the broad strokes of what’s going to happen without any further help from me, particularly when the detail of a handful of outsiders showing up is thrown in. To the best of my recollection the book never uses the word Canada, and if it does, it’s very limited, and most references to the outside world are limited to “the South,” as if this community is literally at the top of the world, and there is nothing at all in any other direction. It’s almost got the feel of a second world fantasy, but not quite.

If anything, I’d compare this book to Caitlin Starling’s The Luminous Dead, another book with a deliberately limited setting and a fairly simple premise, that sticks in your head simply by virtue of being phenomenally atmospheric and creepy. The weird thing about this book is that for most of the book it’s hard to even explain why the prose hits the way it does. I almost wish I had read the thing during February and not in June; it would have been even more effective that way. I don’t know that I liked it as much as TLD or Split Tooth, but it’s still well worth a read.


12:44 PM, Sunday, June 7: 1,922,054 confirmed cases and 109,846 American dead. Worldwide crossed over 400,000 dead today as well.

#REVIEW: THE BOOK OF M, by Peng Shepherd

I think I’ll start with the tl;dr on this book: much like a book called The Luminous Dead that I read last year, which ended up on my best-of-year list at the end of the year despite having a fair number of flaws, my ultimate feelings about Peng Shepherd’s debut novel The Book of M are going to depend on how well the book continues to live in my head now that I’ve finished it. I read the book in a day, which is always a good sign– anything I’m reluctant to put down is usually going to be something I’m going to recommend to people– but … there are some issues here, y’all, and it remains to be seen whether three months from now I remember the cool stuff or I remember the issues.

Also, it might not have been the greatest decision I’ve ever made to read a book about the end of the world while I’m literally stuck in my house during a pandemic. I’ve made better choices, is what I’m saying. And depending on your own situation right now even if you do decide to read this you might reasonably decide to hold off for a little bit. It’s OK, the book will still be there.

Anyway.

(Takes a moment to cough himself into near-unconsciousness)

Right.

So the premise of this book: human beings, through means never particularly dwelled upon or explored, have begun losing their shadows. In and of itself, losing one’s shadow is disconcerting but not especially threatening; however, it turns out that losing your shadow is also a precursor to losing your memory, which is a bit more of a problem. Furthermore, it turns out that occasionally as people’s memories disappear and they begin misremembering things, every so often the entire world just sorta reshapes itself to fit what they think they remember instead of the way things used to be, leading to all sorts of crazy havoc, from houses suddenly losing their doors and windows to entire population centers disappearing overnight. The book follows four main characters: a married couple, one of whose shadows disappears at the beginning of the book, an Iranian Olympic-level archer (roll with it,) and a man who suffers a traumatic brain injury just before the events of the book get rolling and suffers from amnesia, but not the same way everyone else does.

There’s a lot going on.

Here’s the good stuff: Peng Shepherd does good words. The writing is compelling throughout and there’s a palpable sense of dread and horror that permeates the entire book; it genuinely was difficult to put down, and again: it’s nearly 500 pages long and I finished the thing in a day. And, like, okay, I just dealt with “the good stuff” in two sentences, but this isn’t nothing, right? It’s a compelling-ass read. I barely stopped reading it once I stopped. That’s worth a recommend. Oh, and there’s a thing at the end that will knock you out of your seat if you’re not prepared for it. I had an inkling, but the book ends well.

That said, uh, there are some issues with … let’s say worldbuilding and narrative consistency, and the occasional real-world logic problem? And I’ll admit part of this may be me missing stuff here and there, as Shepherd can tend toward the elliptical every once in a while. But there are a fair number of places where there don’t seem to be any rules about how or why this whole memory-loss thing is happening other than pure narrative convenience, and the “sometimes folks misremember things and they become real” bit sounds cool but in practice it literally leads to the Statue of Liberty quietly coming to life and then, less quietly, knocking over skyscrapers with that book she’s holding. And that’s not even a main plot point. It’s literally noted that it’s happening and then the characters move on from it. It’s never quite clear what ultimately happens to the shadowless; sometimes they’re presented as basically becoming so nonfunctional that they forget to eat or breathe and then they die, and other times there are huge bands of them just sort of swarming around out there causing trouble, which sort of presumes some persistence of memory somehow.

Also, there are a whole lot of times where people are able to instantly identify others as shadowed or shadowless, at distance, and I’m pretty sure at least once at night. I could lose my shadow right now and I don’t know that I would notice right away; I don’t know how you figure out that someone fifty feet away has theirs or not. A character is able to fly from Tehran to some airport near Boston after all the shit happens, and explains that the plane is able to land because everyone in the (not Boston, but nearby) place it landed was gone.

And … uh. That’s not how planes work, I don’t think? Or at least that’s not how commercial air flight works?

There’s a bit where one guy gets serious third-degree burns to both his hands, necessitating one of his fingers being amputated later, and then I’m pretty sure that Shepherd herself just forgot about it. This is one of those bits where it’s possible that I missed something, I suppose; maybe the magic ex machina fixed him somewhere, but I don’t think so. His hands are burned to shit and then they … aren’t.

So: two sentences of “good stuff” and then several paragraphs of complaining, but I still enjoyed the book and I can still very much imagine a world where I’m still thinking about it at the end of the year. I’m definitely keeping an eye on Shepherd in the future; I don’t know if there’s a sequel to this in the cards (I don’t think it needs one, but it’s not unimaginable) but one way or another I’m definitely buying her next book. If you think your suspension of disbelief can handle a bit of a workout, I’d think about giving this a read.

Days Gone #Review addendum

It turns out that the game has three of what I’m going to call “epilogue” missions; the interweb is fond of calling them secret endings but they just give them to you as regular missions if you keep playing, so it’s not like you can miss them so long as you don’t quit after the credits. (Which I wouldn’t blame you for, for the record.) Two of them are just nice character bits, but the third was 1) unexpected enough and 2) genuinely jarring and scary enough that I’m awarding the entire game an extra (and meaningless) half point to its score.

Then again, if you wait until after the credits for your most original and disturbing moment, maybe that’s a sign that the game really is the perfect 7.0 game, because a fair number of even the folks who finish the game won’t see this.

At any rate, the scene I’m talking about begins just after the 3:00 mark on this video. It probably won’t have the impact it should if you haven’t played through the game but still. Even if you don’t know what’s happened in the game, if nothing else you’ll get a good idea of why I praised the facial animation by watching this.

#Review: WANDERERS, by Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers is one of those books that could have been very disappointing. To start, I have been waiting for this book for what seems like a very long time. I actually pre-ordered it, which I don’t do with books all that often– I am generally backlogged enough in my reading that even books that I’ve been looking forward to and whose authors I’m big fans of have to wait for a while for me to get to them. Not this one. I not only preordered it, I specifically timed the books I was reading before it so that I would be free and clear and able to start something new immediately when it showed up in my mailbox. So if it had been bad, there is a strong possibility that I might have cried. Actual book-nerd tears. It woulda been a problem.

Let’s not bury the lede any further: Wanderers is Wendig’s best book, and by a pretty large margin– and, again, remember that this is a guy who I am fond of and whose work has shown up in my end-of-year top 10 before. So this is way better than a bunch of books that I really liked. What’s fascinating about it is how different it is from all of Wendig’s other work. His previous work– which includes multiple Star Wars novels, books that have always sort of had a house style– has always been instantly recognizable: short sentences, present tense, visceral detail, and a certain disregard for strict grammar conventions in favor of impactful language. You can show me a single paragraph from any of Wendig’s previous books and I’d be able to tell you it was his. That recognizable.

Wanderers throws all that out the window. This book must have been a beast to write– not only is it markedly longer than any of his previous books (it’s probably close to twice as long as its closest competitor) but the style of the writing is completely different. I would never have guessed Wendig wrote this from a paragraph or even a chapter, although you certainly see his humor and his themes come through– it is, if this makes any sense, a Wendig book made up of nearly 800 not-very-Wendig pages.

That probably doesn’t make any sense.

So, the plot, and this will be spoiler-free, for the most part: the elevator pitch for this book is “What if Chuck Wendig wrote The Stand,” and those seven words were more than enough to earn my money. To be clear, The Stand is one of Stephen King’s two or three best books, and while I’ll need to read Wanderers a couple more times over the next decade or so to see if it lives up to that book’s very high standard, the comparison is not remotely unfair to either book. This book is about a plague, and the end of the world, and a presidential election, and white supremacists, and it’s about all of those things before we mention the titular Wanderers, people who are locked into their own bodies and sleepwalking … somewhere. The world doesn’t even start ending until like halfway through the book, and the omnipresent sense of dread and horror is thick enough to drag your fingers through, even before the book gets around to one of the scarier human villains I’ve read recently. The book is not stingy with its mysteries, and the way they unfold over the course of its somehow-still-fast-paced 780 pages is immensely satisfying.

I have read 74 books so far this year, and of those 74, 17 are on my shortlist for the end of the year. It’s been a good year for reading! But this is the first book that I’ve read and known beyond a shadow of a doubt that yeah, this one’s gonna be top three. You should read Wanderers, and you should start now.

#Review: SEVENEVES, by Neal Stephenson

seveneves-usHere is the first sentence of Neal Stephenson’s enormous, 880-page novel Seveneves:

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.

That, my friends, is a brilliant goddamn first sentence.  Brilliant.  I made a terrible mistake several years ago and let the Baroque Cycle be the first Neal Stephenson books I ever tried to read.  That meant I didn’t touch him for years until finally picking up Snow Crash just for the hell of it, and he’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite writers, to the point where I might re-attempt the Baroque Cycle books if I’m ever feeling crazy.

I’ve already written one post where I talk about the premise of this book, but since y’all don’t necessarily read every single thing I post let me recap:

The moon blows up.  That’s kind of a problem.  Humanity has to, on a real tight schedule, move enough people into permanent life in orbit (starting on the International Space Station, but rapidly adding on significantly) before the wrecked bits of the moon scour all life off of the planet in an event called the Hard Rain.

For 500 pages, it’s basically The Martian, except instead of one guy on Mars it’s what’s left of the entire human race on a space station.  The tone is very similar, though; lots of technical detail, lots of trying to be as realistic as possible given the circumstances, lots of holy shit this is gonna kill everybody if we don’t figure it out.  By the end of the first 500 pages, rather a lot has gone wrong and we are down to eight surviving humans, all women– one past childbearing age and seven others, the titular “Seven Eves” of the book.  One of them happens to be a geneticist, so it turns out that rebuilding the human race from seven women isn’t quite the difficulty one would expect it to be.

After those 500 pages the words “Five Thousand Years Later” appear, on a page by themselves.  And then there are over three hundred more pages.

Stop reading.

Close the book and put it on a shelf.  It was a great book.  Don’t read a single other word, because the epilogue, or whatever the hell I’ll call it– hell, it’s 300+ pages long, it’s an entire novel all by itself– and it is terrible.

It took me two weeks to read the first eight hundred pages of this book, and with thirty pages left this afternoon I closed it and put it away, because the epilogue was that ridiculous and nonsensical and just plain bad.  Literally pages and pages of unnecessary description and backstory and nonsense in between individual lines of dialogue from time to time.  A book that has been careful to establish scientific and cultural plausibility for its entire running length suddenly stops making any sense at all.  It’s not just bad, it’s hacky, and it’s stunning that Neal Stephenson wrote it, much less that he felt it was a worthy add-on to the rest of the book.

I four-starred it on Goodreads, and the first 500 pages are good enough that you should buy the book anyway.  Hell, the first 500 pages would be on my shortlist for the best books of 2015, easily, if it weren’t for the albatross at the end.  Don’t get me wrong: I recommend you read this.  But that’s because I figure once you’ve read 500+ pages you’ve already gotten your money’s worth.  Just don’t touch anything past then, because I’ve never seen a novel go off the rails this badly.